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The rhythm of Paul Simon

The rhythm of Paul Simon — A look at the singer’s latest tour

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The Paul Simon orchestra could pass for the house band at the United Nations. Spread out over the stage of the Tacoma (Wash.) Dome, the 17 musicians — hailing from three continents and hometowns as vastly different as Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, and New York — look like a multicultural fashion show. In the back on the left, percussionist Cyro Baptista is the very image of a Brazilian beatnik, with his goatee and floppy cap, as he shakes a large wicker disc outfitted with several jingle bells. Up front on the right, Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, resplendent in an oversize shirt and trousers featuring a kaleidoscopic African design, squeezes out ringing torrents of notes on an electric guitar. To the left of the middle, American Michael Brecker, casually urbane in a pink knit shirt and black slacks, blows into a squared-off lavender tube — an electronic wind instrument — to produce synthesized music as light and sweet as a summer breeze. Surrounding them, in an array that covers a three-tiered set of bleachers, are four more percussionists, two more guitarists, two more horn players, and a bassist. The body count would be even higher, but the three backup singers are offstage for this number. Down front, right in the center of attention, the Secretary General of this assembly is having the time of his life. Simon, who calls his current group ”the best of all the bands I’ve played with,” is singing, ”Proof is the bottom line for everyone.” The crowd in the Tacoma Dome obviously hears enough proof to agree with his assessment. When the song is finished, 15,000 fans rise to cheer.

And so the Born at the Right Time tour came to life on Jan. 4. To promote his new album, The Rhythm of the Saints, which has been planted in the top 10 ever since it came out in October, Simon will be on the road for the next nine months in North America and Europe. To stage the complex blend of Brazilian percussion, African guitar, and American pop on the album, Simon has been rehearsing, off and on, for the past five months. Back in August, after the first live performance of the band at a benefit concert on Long Island, Simon observed, ”It’s not easy integrating the Brazilians and Africans and the (top session musicians) I played with in the ’70s.”

It’s hard enough for the group just to have a casual chat. The Paul Simon band may play the international language of music, but it speaks in several tongues. To communicate with three of the Brazilian percussionists, who don’t speak English, Simon must use the fourth to translate to and from Portuguese. Others in the group speak French or English, or both. At a rehearsal on Long Island shortly after Thanksgiving, Simon uses a combination of translators, body language, and musical example to tell his band what he wants. Three backup singers, French-speaking African women who’ve just flown in from Paris, struggle to learn the lyrics phonetically, so the band ends up with an extended lunch break while the singers slowly memorize ”Born at the Right Time” syllable by syllable. Eventually, before the tour starts, Simon has to replace the trio with Americans when the language barrier cannot be overcome.

Blending the different musical styles of Rhythm took hard work, but it was a natural fit. African music and Brazilian music are distant relatives, separated by the Atlantic Ocean and tk hundred years. When black slaves were imported to the New World, they brought their music with them. As different as African and Brazilian styles may sound now, they who’s they? all dance to the same beat. ”The names we use for these rhythms are different,” says guitarist Nguini, the West African who helped arrange many of the songs on Rhythm, ”but they are the same rhythms.” Percussionist Baptista, who joined Simon for the tour, says, ”This project has showed shown? me my roots again in a new way.” Simon himself has seen his work in a new light while preparing for the tour. Several older songs among the 23 that make up the show, including three originally done by Simon & Garfunkel, have been redecorated with world-beat arrangements. The last part of ”Bridge Over Troubled Water,” for example, is sung to a simmering reggae groove. And ”Kodachrome” is almost totally globalized, a mix of West African and Latin American elements that turn it into a polyrhythmic dance party.

By radically rethinking some of his older songs, Simon has demonstrated how much he’s grown as a musician. In fact, Graceland and Rhythm are worlds apart from his earlier solo albums, going far beyond the jazz-inflected folk pop that characterized his music after he split from Art Garfunkel. Starting with Graceland, Simon turned his creative process upside down. That’s because his previous album, the critically praised but slow-selling (for Simon) Hearts and Bones, had not been satisfying to make. In retrospect, Simon liked the original songs, but not their recorded versions. ”I was very frustrated,” he remembers. ”I was getting really great (instrumental) tracks, but they didn’t fit the songs.” So he changed the way he wrote. Instead of coming up with lyrics and basic melodies before producing finished instrumentals, he began to work backwards — first the music, then the words.

Creating the music was hard. In the mid-’80s, Simon felt completely out of synch with the world of pop music. Hearts and Bones hadn’t done that well, and the Simon musical sensibility that had sold millions of records now seemed out of date. ”The ’70s had produced disco, punk, New Wave, and then the downtown scene — none of which had any particular relevance to what I was thinking,” Simon says. ”I was far away from it. It was 1984. I suddenly realized that this tape I had been listening to, which was so interesting, was a band I would like to record with, and who is this band?”

The unlabeled tape that Simon had received from a friend, Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II, actually featured several South African bands. Once he identified the album, it led Simon to the South African musicians who helped him record Graceland, the biggest hit album of his career. Although it wasn’t his first ethnomusicological experience — songs like ”El Condor Pasa,” drew upon Peruvian folk music almost 15 years before — this time Simon was attacked as a cultural pirate. Even now, he becomes angry when this issue is raised. ”I can’t think of one really harmful thing that’s happened because of Graceland,” Simon says, ”but I can think of many positive things: South African music is played all over the world, South African musicians are playing all over the world, and they’re paid significantly more money.” South African guitarist Ray Phiri, who played guitar on Graceland and now has rejoined Simon for the current tour, is, not surprisingly, a strong Simon advocate. ”Those who have been crucifying Paul Simon,” Phiri says, ”will someday know the truth.”

In making Rhythm, Simon knew he’d be attacked again. So why did he decide to make another world-beat album, leaving himself open to old charges that he was plundering underdeveloped cultures, as well as new criticisms that he was repeating himself out of creative bankruptcy. Simon says that he had no choice but to follow his instincts: ”When I found a musical reason to do this album, I didn’t feel there was any other reason why I shouldn’t do it.”

The musical reason was born in a Los Angeles parking lot 3 1/2 years ago. Simon had gone to the West Coast to sing on an album by Brazilian vocalist Milton Nascimento. Afterward, Nascimento invited Simon to visit him in Brazil. Simon accepted, explaining that ”I would like to go down and hear drumming.” This was the first of four trips Simon would make, resulting in most of the percussion heard on Rhythm. At the time, Simon was working primarily on a Broadway musical about Puerto Ricans in New York. Going to Brazil, he says, ”was just a listening adventure.”

But the Brazilian project gradually became more important. Simon stopped working on the Puerto Rican musical, which he plans to pick up again after this tour, as he became more excited about a new blend of international styles. He recruited guitarist Nguini, orginally from West Africa but now living in Washington, D.C., to play over the Brazilian percussion. ”That,” Simon says, ”was an interesting enough sound.” This combination, with its dazzling interplay of sparkling polyrhythms and chimy? countermelodies, became the heart of the Rhythm of Simon.

And the heart has been pumping green ever since Rhythm came out: Nearly two million copies have been sold, even though the first single, ”The Obvious Child,” didn’t hit the charts. But the next one, ”Proof,” is a real crowd pleaser in concert. And the single will be accompanied by a video that stars Steve Martin and Chevy Chase. (Musicologists will remember that Chase appeared in the video for ”You Can Call Me Al,” which kick-started sales for Graceland.) Simon follows the sales of his albums very closely, and judges himself partly on how well he sells, but he claims not to be controlled by commercial gain. ”It makes life easier. It makes it easier to put together a 17-piece band,” he says backstage at the Tacoma Dome. ”But as long as I can make another album that’s all I care about.”

Chatting with Simon before the Tacoma show is a sober experience. His gestures are tiny and his face remains poker-straight, except for a slight smile when the musician break out in raucous laughter. Simon often takse long pauses before, during, and after his comments — he’s his own dangling conversation. He admits to being cautious during interviews, but adds, ”I’m very comfortable on stage. Making music is something that I really like and that I’m really good at.” During the concert, with 15,000 fans in noisy rapture, he opens up — jabbing his fist to heaven, grinning, making jokes to the crowd. With a guitar in his hands, a mike at his face, and an audience more than 20 feet away from him, Paul Simon is a happy man.

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